“This is not a show!” announces R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills at the beginning of Live at the Olympia. And technically he’s correct. Looking for a charge while working on the material that would make up Accelerate, the band’s 13th full-length studio effort, they played five nights at Dublin’s Olympia Theater. Professing the events as live rehearsals of in-progress material, the still remaining original members of R.E.M.—Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mills—plus two others, longstanding guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin, play in front of an invited audience of family, friends and fanclub members. This two-disc live album compiles performances from those nights on the Emerald Isle with a DVD film available in a special edition.
Stipe thanks the crowd for joining in on their “grand experiment” and mentions on several occasions that the lack of time to work on the songs has left the members in “terror.” Still, the atmosphere sounds relaxing enough for the members to converse and joke with the select audience. While there are no musical trainwrecks encountered here, the go for broke mentality does elicit several minor miscues. Stipe can be heard laughing during “Letter Never Sent” when something didn’t turn out right and he screws up the lyrics during “Drive.” In another instance, “Disturbance at the Heron House” has a false start. But those moments don’t seem to be as bothersome as they would be during a genuine concert. The 39 songs nod to several of the tracks on Accelerate, with “Disguised” being the most significant inclusion since the number took another turn in the studio as well as a name change to “Supernatural Superserious.” Others are in better shape than Stipe admits. Just like the studio recording, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge” fires out as a sign that after more than 20 years together R.E.M. is still able to play with a gusto that had been forgotten or willfully ignored for a number of years after original drummer Bill Berry left. “Houston” sets forth on a short journey of foreboding and indictment of the Bush administration’s lack of aid following Hurricane Katrina.
Of course, it’s not all brand new shining tunes here. A gift to those who caught these live rehearsals, the band rummages through its catalogue, going as far back as the Chronic Town EP for several numbers including “Gardening at Night,” tracks from Murmur, Fables of the Reconstruction , the undervalued New Adventures in Hi-Fi and avoids a rehash of the hits as well as the largely criticized 2004 release, Around the Sun. Altogether, the final product that is Live at the Olympia sounds like a reminder to older fans that the band members understand that they went off the rails for too long. It’s an apology of sorts that should be accepted and enjoyed, with the hope that it bodes well for the future.